In my books, I usually write about people. People who do things, go places, think thoughts, and generally get up to no good. There are, of course, settings—the places in which these people exist are important—and sometimes they bear a brief description. However, to linger too long on a scene or image risks boring the reader, no matter how interesting the mouse holes and snowflakes are in your mind.
The balance of this is difficult to achieve; sometimes you don’t want to give a character’s thoughts away, so you describe what they’re doing, or wearing, or you spend some time discussing the importance of trivialities. Or you might fill the space with intense action, blow-by-blow sword fights and the whizzing of bullets past your ears. For many, this can be an easy out, because of course action is mindless and entertaining, and that’s exactly what many people want from their books: an escape from the realities of life.
But do it too much and you lose the dynamic of the story. Action needs to ebb and flow, rise and fall, come and go. There must be moments of reflection to offset the noise, or it all becomes too much and overwhelms the senses. This is true especially of film, where the temptation is to wow the audience with spectacle and no substance.
So how does one do it? How you do create interesting characters that can drive the action and plot, without overwhelming the audience with unnecessary background and/or intense action?
To start with, I think, it’s worth thinking about why the characters in a story are so important. This might seem an odd question—it’s difficult to imagine a story with no people in it. Mountains and buildings don’t generally do anything themselves, unless a person gets involved. You could film a rock for two hours and call it a movie, but it’s unlikely anyone would want to see it.
The implication, then, is that it’s people that are interesting, rather than the things that surround them. We want to know about what people do, what they think, and how they live. All the better if those people are somehow exceptional, though there are certainly great stories about relatively ordinary people. And if it’s people that are interesting, it only makes sense to fill your story with them, so that the people reading your book or watching your movie stay through the end.
If you choose to write about people (and I use ‘people’ in the loosest of terms: they can be aliens or robots, so long as they are still characters in some way), you then need to make sure that the audience can relate to those people. Why? There’s probably more depth to this question than I have the inclination now to explore, but for me it’s a question of imagination. A lot of people have very little of it, to begin with; asking them to imagine what it’s like to be a seven-tentacled sea-demon from Neptune can be a step too far. But if you give them a character they can relate to, it becomes easier for them to imagine how that character thinks, what their motivations are—what they want. Hence why stories about kings and queens are often far less popular than stories about farm boys and stablehands.
And of course, when it comes down to it, that’s all stories are, really: an act of imagination. As the writer, our job is to do the imagining for our audience, for those who struggle. I generally feel that people deserve some respite from the grueling fates of life, and getting lost in a good book or falling in love with a movie is a wonderful way of doing that.
So why are characters so important? Because they are the link to the audience, the connection with the reader and the watcher. Unless your audience is a fish, it doesn’t bear much relevance to describe the wetness of water. But describe how it quenches the thirst of a man lost in the desert, and it becomes suddenly real: everyone has felt thirst, or hunger, at some point in their lives and can understand how agonizing it must be for that poor, poor character—who, thankfully, isn’t them.
And as it turns out, it isn’t necessarily important for the audience to like the character, or even feel pity or empathy with them. You could have a cast of villains and still come out on top, so long as the audience cares about them. The reader needs to feel something for the character—love, hate, revulsion, fear—and a reason to feel that way. Snow White without the evil queen would be nothing, and the queen has very few redeeming qualities—yet we can fear the queen, as we would fear the tyranny of a vile parent. Remove Snow White and you still have a character that we can connect with, even if it’s in a dark and terrible way.
So if characters are the meat of the story, the main thread that ties everything together, it becomes important to write compelling ones. And this is, often, where the great difficulty sets in. Writing about people—real or fictitious—is easy. Writing about them in a way that actually makes them interesting and worth learning more about is insanely difficult. The writer doesn’t want to resort to tropes and clichés if they can avoid it, but there are only so many places to start.
When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I had to come up with a whole host of characters to populate the books. At first, I thought this would be no more difficult than coming up with their names, but it soon became apparent that much more was going to be required. And to that end, I ended up thinking of my characters almost as children—to be raised, grown, nurtured and matured until they were ready to take part in the story. I’ve at times been criticized for giving too much background information in the opening chapters of my first book, Consolation, but for every piece of information in the book, ten more were left out. I had to know what my characters went through before they ever showed up in the story so that their motivations in the story were as believable as possible. Why would someone want to kill another person for no reason?
This was a lesson I learned as I went on, and interestingly it has meant that some of the most compelling characters I’ve written about aren’t even the main ones. Although I know more about the central cast, there are wonderful side characters whose mystery and enigma make them, in a way, far more appealing. I’ve had a lot more fun in the end writing about the secondary protagonist than the primary, and the villains are even better.
The great thing about knowing a great deal about the characters and their motivations is that once you are ready to thrust them into the drama of your fictional world, their reactions will seem very real. Suspension of disbelief is a thing, but it can only take you so far: I’ll believe Superman can fly, but why does Lex Luthor want him to fight Batman so much?
The downside, of course, is that it hurts all the more when you have to do something terrible to your own characters. But then again, if it’s painful to the writer, it should be agonizing to the reader. If you can kill a character without blinking an eye, then don’t be surprised when your audience doesn’t shed a tear, either.
Now, there are scores of examples of when the development of characters was done beautifully, and quite a few where it was, for lack of a better term, botched completely. If you’ve read some of what I’ve written here before, you’ll know that Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors of all time. He’s a master of engaging and compelling character writing, even though his characters are very often entirely unassuming. From thieving orphans to reclusive spinsters, every single one of the people in his stories have a story of their own, and although we often see only glimpses of these tales, enough is alluded to for us to understand exactly why Scrooge hates Christmas so, or why Miss Havisham keeps the shutters closed and the curtains drawn.
Of course, Dickens also wanted us to feel compassion for his characters, and rarely wrote a villain who deserved no redemption. Others, however, have been able to make us feel a terror for an antagonist so real that we keep our own curtains drawn for nights afterward. When I first read Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, I was petrified of Hannibal Lecter. Yet at the same time, I was fascinated by him: despite his brutality and predilection for feasting on other people, he somehow became the hero—because the people he killed were, often, even worse.
This bizarre blend of terror and compassion transferred beautifully to the big screen when Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster portrayed the disturbing relationship between the FBI rookie and the infamous serial killer. It becomes even more difficult to develop characters successfully in movies since there is so much less to work with: instead of five hundred pages, you have a mere two hours in which to enamor the audience of your characters.
One of the modern marvels (pardon the pun) of character development in cinema has been the adaptations of Marvel’s comic book characters in movies such as Iron Man and Captain America. On paper, these movies shouldn’t have worked at all: their source material isn’t always known for being realistic or relatable to the everyday. But in nearly every Marvel movie that’s been released, including the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises, we are given not only believable characters but character-driven stories, as well. In what could have easily become mindless action (think Transformers), we instead got severely flawed and antagonistic heroes who are at each other’s throats as often as they are at those of their enemies.
Of course, we don’t have to have crippling flaws to have great characters; the original Star Wars films were centered around heroes and villains that, again, could have been cardboard cutouts. Instead, we’re given characters who have genuine motivations and good hearts, and just enough is said and left unsaid to keep us rooting for even the roguish Han Solo.
I find the Star Wars franchise an interesting one for this very reason, in fact: it runs the gamut from beautifully written characters to clumsy storylines and boring bad guys, depending on the movie we’re talking about. I recently watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (naturally), and came away thinking that, whilst is wasn’t bad, it could have been better. The primary flaw, as I saw it, was character development: unlike every previous Star Wars movie since A New Hope, we were introduced to a wholly new cast of characters—and were asked to care about them.
Regardless of the fact that we already knew how the movie was going to end (remember—many Bothans died), this required us to learn about new characters quickly, and feel compassion for them. Yet vitally important scenes from the very beginning left me feeling flat. When Luke’s family is killed by the Empire in A New Hope, we see his grief, his anger, and his determination. When essentially the same thing happens to our new hero, we suddenly skip forward sixteen-odd years with nary an explanation of what happened in the intervening time. Another character turns from a benevolent rescuer to a warlord with, again, little explanation. Yet more seem to have Jedi-like powers without probing into their past, and ultimately their deaths felt far less impactful for the lack of knowledge about these people.
However, Rogue One was rescued by a nonetheless interesting storyline and good acting, and while it certainly isn’t the best Star Wars movie out there, it by far isn’t the worst. Superhero movies, on the other hand, can be phenomenal, as we saw with Marvel’s cinematic universe—or appalling, as have been many of the DC franchise films of late. Another movie I watched recently with little enthusiasm was Suicide Squad, the story of a ragtag bunch of convicted villains sent to defeat an otherworldly foe to redeem themselves. The concept is great, and this could have been a wonderful movie: but the characters were so poorly written that even Will Smith and Margot Robbie couldn’t act their way out of it.
The essential, fatal flaw of Suicide Squad was in giving too many characters too little screen time. The same could be said of the Avengers movies, although I’ll give them a pass since they’re primarily based on much more successful films. But with Suicide Squad, we’re given only a fleeting glimpse into the lives of these antiheroes before the action takes over—and never relents. One character is madly in love with the main villain, yet we never know why; another would do anything for his daughter yet spends his time murdering people for money.
It isn’t that the characters are inherently unlikeable; it isn’t even that most of them have almost no dialogue; it’s simply that we’re never really given a reason to care about what happens to each one of them. Perhaps the best scene in the movie is where Deadshot is asked to kill Harley Quinn, and he doesn’t—it shows a maturing of the character. There was very little else like this.
In the end, the characters we write are vital to the stories we tell, and it’s therefore, all the more important to ensure that the audience can grasp on to something about them. Some tiny shred of mortality that allows us as readers and watchers to think to ourselves, yes—I could imagine myself doing that. I can understand where they’re coming from. Without this, the characters might as well be made of wood—and the stories would be just about as interesting.
What about you? Who are some of your favorite characters in fiction, and why?
Chris, features writer. Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com.
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